10 06 2012

This is going to be disjointed, for I am dozens of people–each volunteering the other to take the stage, but shrinking from the lights when their turn is due.


(Portrait of Ross)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996)
HIDE/SEEK exibit

We don’t know how to function, she said, without an enemy.

We cannot function, she said, if we cannot reconcile with ourselves. Own the betrayals, the sabotage, the hate, the men with the guns that spit poison and leave us wasted away. Dying from the AIDS we gave ourselves.

The specter of rejection stands before and behind, we know, surrounding us on every side. It is an emptiness that devours our every ray of colored light. It is insatiable.

It is us, too.

Read the rest of this entry »


He Who Walks Behind

8 11 2011

i enter in peaces

filled and emptied

filled and emptied

emptied and


with strength

she comes as

a child.



tall, dark, and


never seen

–always felt

His weight does

not bend her

but makes her


for a moment

i stand


my shoulder


the rents from

His wrath



10 10 2011

The incomparable James Alison spoke to our class this past Monday. His message of kindness, wit, and valiant courage was insatiably consumed by my raw and weeping heart. According to him, faith is a “stable disposition placed in you by someone else” as “someone does something for you that enables you to relax enough to do something else,” and in that doing, “the clearly impossible becomes not just possible, but normal.”

For Alison, Jesus is the ultimate daredevil; the one human who was bold enough to do the impossible and enter death, not as its slave but as its triumphant Lord. When embraced, his example should lead to a profound sense of relaxation within us as the impossible–confronting the death* both within us and out in the wider world–is made absolutely unremarkable. In faith we have the power to take death for granted in the same automatic way as we do our impossible ability to walk. If you see someone who can walk, Alison said, you can know without a shadow of a doubt that at some point someone cared for them, however imperfectly; cared enough to teach them step by painful step to lift themselves up from the ground; cared enough to nurture them into freedom from impossibility.

I have a particular story to tell about how I have been nurtured thusly, but I’m finding it infernally difficult to pinpoint a beginning. This story is about my first unguarded tears since July 5, which were drawn forth by the presence of my practicum facilitator. But my tears on Tuesday make no sense without the context of my friend’s tears of desperate longing from the previous morning, or the dream of four days earlier in which I was entrusted with the impossible task of restoring the mad King’s sanity, or the day I was forcefully confronted with the depravity lurking in the heart of my family, or the year I spent frantically courting my sorrow, or the twenty-two years I poured into expunging from my conscious thoughts any awareness that my life was not exactly what it seemed on the most superficial level and the concomitant need to appear to be the master of my own inner world at all times, to stuff down any pesky emotion that might rise up and disturb my equilibrium.

One of the strangest myths I ever used to describe my experience of my Self imagined the core of my being as a little boy skipping down the road, carefree and confident and safe. At the time of this first telling I was explaining why I was such a loquacious storyteller when face to face with one other person and so, so, so quiet in groups. My interrogator postulated I was scared of all the strange people, but fear–though it defined my stance toward everyone–was something I could never confess to experiencing. So I imagined myself skipping, imagined it so vividly that I professed it as my Truth even in the turmoil of my neurotically anxious mind. Anything less whimsical than skipping–my sorrow, fear, anger, lust, humanity–was demanded to never penetrate deeper than the surface of my skin, to wash off without ever touching the core of my “I.”

It was patently ridiculous, a recipe for disaster.

I still live out of that myth more than I would care to admit.

So, when I came to Tuesday to speak about Monday, I used phrases like “overwhelming emotion,” “out of control,” “whole body tensed and quivering,” and “if those cookies hadn’t been waiting for me I would have completely lost it!” What I was telling my PF, and what she heard so well, is that it is impossible for me to be seen as other than in control. I’ve been radically redefining what “in control” means to me, shaping it to include such  formerly verboten things as tears in public and speaking silliness with strangers, but the new must always come on my own terms. It is not allowed to sweep me away unbidden. When it seems to be threatening to do so, decades of practice in running for the hills in order to blow off just enough steam to survive immediately kicks in. I flee into solitude.

Only, for the last year I have Known that continuing to “deal” with things on my own (read: repress, avoid, deny) will destroy me. Call it intuition, a hunch. I would even go so far as to say that God Herself told me so, making a covenant with me that my tears, my healing, would never come to me in the absence of another’s face. I love this promise, and I despise it; I hate the death it calls me into. I have two decades’ worth of repressed emotions clamoring for my attention, and they are so much vaster than any ability I might wish I had to pretty them up, control their expression, choose at what intensity I will lay them before your feet. When I return voice to them they will scream their existence from the mountaintops. I am, frankly, terrified of what they will say.

And this is where I come full circle and join back up with Alison’s faith: living in the courage to burn with all of my passion, rather than just flashing little glimpses here and there when I feel you can handle it, is my impossibility. I simply do not have those muscles to support myself. Tuesday, Heather sat with me for an hour in gentleness and acceptance and strength as I flirted with my emotions, leaning progressively closer but always pulling away the moment they showed signs of wanting to press their lips to mine in turn. She held me upright when I wanted to do nothing but crawl, was always right there when I fell again, again, again. And then she said,

“My hope for you is that someone will make a place for you at their table where you may feast.”

and I replied,

“Me too. I am so tired of having to make it all myself.”

Those simple words, spoken from the very bottom of my heart, brought with them a flood of tears. Sobs wracked my body. And a tightness, a clenching, a walling off of myself from myself was loosened, broken down. The impossible happened, and I relaxed. And I could never have done it alone.

love & snugglies


*for any readers not already primed by Dan Allender to think in terms of entering death (or those who are and want to see something of a different take on the matter), let me point you here and here

Your you’re

12 09 2011

I’m a bit of a grammar nut; I’ve been correcting my teachers’ usage of there/their/they’re, to/two/too, and your/you’re since kindergarten. (They loved me) (Seriously, they did)

I am also on a magical discovery of the shaping influence of my unconscious on every facet of my life–and never more so than after reading Annie Rogers’ The Unsayable.

So, with that in mind, let’s just say that it caught my attention when I began getting sloppy with my yours. It’s only been a few days yet, but I am repeatedly and automatically writing “you’re” when I intend your. This is not an error I typically find myself prone to making.

This is not an error.

So, when it happened today in the midst of my journal reflection on the first day of Practicum I (part deux), I had the freedom and inclination to interrogate myself for some illumination into what I’m attempting to express through this arresting transcription. Five minutes and a bit of wordplay later, this is what I’ve got:

“Thomas, you’re life demands you answer ‘How am I a man?'”


You are.

You are life.

Thomas, you are life.

Thomas, you are your demands.

You are a man?

Thomas, you are a man.

You are you.

And with that, I return to my all time favorite benediction,

love and snugglies!

When do I betray?

5 09 2011

Alternate title: the one where I immediately regret pushing “publish”

**Note to family: this may hurt a bit. You’ve been warned**

My school places an astronomical importance on self-awareness, particularly in the context of the first-years’ core classes (which I am now taking for the second time ’round): Faith, Hope, Love; Interpersonal Foundations; Hermeneutics; and Practicum I–all of them are designed to push us out of our comfortable, habitual, generally unknowing ways of processing self and world and force us to make deliberate choices about how we are to be. It is disruptive, exhausting work. We are all fools to be so blithely walking off this cliff–and our professors double the fools for taking upon their shoulders some measure of responsibility for guiding each of us into the depths of our tumultuous mix of depravity and glory.

If there is one thing I learned through a year of beautiful agony it is this:

The last thing in the world I am prepared to grow in awareness of is my own secret self.

I was raised by a mother who is so afraid of becoming like unto her own parents she second-guesses everything about herself and a father who gleefully encouraged such self-doubt because it served his own hidden agenda. When confronted with the bitter truth that the man she married had been siphoning off funds to support a sexual addiction for nearly two decades, my mom’s most chilling response was “I’ve known something’s been wrong for years, I just always assumed it was my fault.” Not that she was the only one prodded toward the disowning of self; the aforementioned father continues to insist his children are culpable for his decision to hide the core of himself away from their innocent eyes.

I grew up in a church that prides itself on the denial of humanity. Their focus on carving the common-sensical truth of the Bible from the accretions of human history–originally intended as a movement to foster unity within the church–leaves the majority of believing Christians, let alone the willfully unrepentant nonbelievers, weeping in darkness as the gates of heaven are slammed shut.

I probably have the tropism “fake it ’til you make it” engraved upon my very bones. Only…I’ve tried to fake it, and what I’ve found is that the faking only becomes more extravagant and the making so infuriatingly elusive you eventually forget there was ever any greater goal in mind at all. The lies become your new truth. Desire is buried beneath a sludge of apathy and fear. Then one day, if you’re exceedingly lucky, the house of cards is picked up by a gust of wind and scattered across infinity and you are left exposed, naked and shivering. That’s the day you leave Texas (or whatever your barren desert is named) and move to Seattle (the promised land! flowing with…rain and ever more rain), where the most extraordinary people surround you and show you, tear by blessed tear, that there is another way to live: the way of opening yourself up to desire, not cutting it short; a way of vulnerability before others, without the need to constantly pretend to be better than they.

And yet…

The old patterns are proving to be ridiculously tenacious. Particularly now, as I’m in class with 99 fresh faces to whom I introduce myself as Tom “tried this all before and failed” Sheldon. Oh how taxing this honesty is, when my very introduction invites you into my bastion of shame! Is it just my imagination or do your eyes become veiled as I stand before you, tangible evidence that things aren’t guaranteed to work out as smoothly as you had to hope in order to pack everything up and move across the country to this tiny little gem of a school?

And now I’ve finally circled around to the question that compels me to pick at these sores tonight, that just won’t leave well enough alone (because “well enough” just isn’t acceptable any more, dammit!)

When is it that I betray my experience? Is it when you ask “why?” and I sidestep the utter chaos of my life with a vague allusion to some “personal crisis”?  Am I perpetuating self-abuse when I come home from class and watch Netflix until I pass out from pure exhaustion somewhere around 3am? When you ask how my trip home was and I answer “mostly fun,” am I doing justice to my experience?

Or is now the betrayal, when I type out my worry and confusion behind closed doors rather than seek out the presence of someone who will love me well?

No, I’m not ready for self-awareness. I can hardly handle the little I have. What good is the freedom to feel more fully when what crashes upon you are waves of inadequacy and longing?


28 08 2011

I need words tonight. Some outlet for the chaos in my gut.

Ironic, then, that I just spent the evening surrounded by friends who have seen the worst I have to offer and come back for more…and it wasn’t until I was alone that I had anything to say. Goodness, do I ever have things to say.

My therapist, God love him, tells me I am now entering the fire, the crucible, where the dross of my soul will be identified, separated, discarded. He says this as a statement of fact: inviolable, inevitable. That I’ve done it all before and know exactly what will be asked of me only makes it all the more terrifying.

Once upon a time, my crucible was physical. A freshman in high school, I was newly infatuated with this thing called “backpacking”–you mean, using nothing but the power of your own legs, taking nothing you weren’t willing to carry on your own back for dozens of miles, you can get to alpine lakes of neverending depth, meadows bursting with wildflowers, and stars in their billions?! I’m never going home–and, even more so, with the supreme confidence, and joy, and flourishing that my Wilderness Expeditions heroes and heroines seemed to effortlessly embody. I lived summer to summer those years, with every moment between my mountainous adventures dull and meaningless by comparison. But I digress. That year, the crucible came in the form of a ridge straight from hell: 3000 feet of vertical ascent in less than a mile, after a full 12 miles of hiking under the relentless Colorado sun. Being young and in shape (and an utter fool) I figured in for a penny, in for a pound–I wasn’t just going to climb The Crucible, I was going to run up it. With 50 pounds strapped to my back. And no water to speak of.

Did I also mention I hated myself more than a little that week? I don’t remember why (something to do with porn?), but I do remember saying to myself “Tom, you may be a pathetic failure back home, but on the mountain you have the chance to make up for it. Run all the way to the top now and you will be worthy of forgiveness. Fail and you will always be a nothing, a liar, deserving of hell.”

My legs gave out beneath me a hundred yards from the top.

My therapist, God bless his soul, tells me we have but one metaphor for times like these: Gethsemane. Pleading, betrayal, kenosis. Kenosis: the utter emptying of self. There’s something wretchedly therapeutic in pushing your body to the point of collapse; hearing, and then rejecting, its increasingly strident complaints until the nervous system throws a little tantrum and you’re reminded, violently–I Am Not God.

Am I crazy enough, gutsy enough, strong enough to push until the point of collapse now, when the muscle giving up will be my heart?

If I am–what then? That backpacking trip, after a few minutes of rest and a little help from my friends, I was back on my feet and pushing onward. We summited that mountain together, me and the youth group who once named me “Quiet Confidence.” Is there a summit to my life, even a false one, a simple moment where I can stand triumphant, or is there just another crucible lurking in the distance, harder and hotter than anything I could imagine tonight?

My therapist, praise God for him, tells me he knows I will not quit. He says this as a statement of fact: inexorable, irrevocable.

Sometimes I even believe him.

Can you cry in freefall?

16 08 2011

My time in Colorado, with my beloved mother and sisters, is slipping away. I chase after the seconds, but they outpace this mortal body by 670,999,997 miles per hour, give or take a few. I hadn’t fathomed the size of their absence until I felt that hole filled.

This night, amidst packing for my trillionth flight this summer, give or take a trillion minus eight, feels like a good time to share another airplane story.

The first leg of my most recent flight into Denver was overbooked. My seat was in the rear of the cabin, my boarding group the last to be called; I stared at faces as I trudged down the aisle. It was 7:20 on a Tuesday morning. Every eye was hooded with a quiet desperation.

Or were they just mirrors reflecting my own dis-ease back upon me?

The seat next to mine was the last on the plane to be warmed by life, however surly. He was a southpaw; I know because his coat flapped open as he squeezed by, his gun staring me in the face. I thought sky marshals were a relic of cheap fiction? Clearly he must have too, the guy was out cold before we even left the gate and didn’t wake until we’d touched down in Salt Lake City. I could have palmed his weapon at any point during the flight. I could have stormed the cockpit, put my 30 minutes of flying experience to good use, and rerouted us somewhere far away–just flown and flown until we ran out of fuel, flown to some island where we’d fish and scavenge and create our own world from scratch.

Instead, I pulled out my book and entered the world someone else had crafted for me, a world where “what has been wounded in relationship must, after all, be healed in relationship” and you “[can] tell love when you can take it completely for granted.”

And I cried.

From liftoff to the moment we again touched solid ground my cheeks were streaked with tears, all because of that lyrical little treasure I picked up from the library. As I worshiped through the sacred stories of A Shining Affliction I found myself thinking over and over and over again “I want (to be) that!”

I sat in a tin can with 150 strangers and cried tears of hope and longing. Sometimes I really do impress myself.

For the next leg? Lather, rinse, and repeat–only replace the sky marshal with a hirsute man-beast wearing football memorabilia and encompassing half of my seat as well as his own. My concentration was frequently broken by the sudden rush of cool as his arm shifted away from my own, bringing the unsettling awareness of just how much he’d been sweating.


One week later: the book is different, planes are heading the opposite direction, sky marshal and minotaur have been replaced by human-shaped bottle of coco-butter tanning lotion and puking 7-year old girl (I really couldn’t tell you which smell was worse)…tears are the same. Reading in public is becoming dangerous.